Harishchandra, the son of Trishanku, was an ancestor of Rama. He ruled over Ayodhya with his wife Taramati and son Rohitashwa. He was a just and kind king, and his subjects led a happy and peaceful life during his reign.
Harishchandra had, early in his life, learnt the value of truth, and decided to never tell a lie, or go back on his word. In time, he gained fame for his truthfulness, honesty and integrity. This fame reached the ears of the gods in heaven, and they decided to test him. The sage Vishwamitra was selected to be the one to test the king, and accordingly he set out on his task.
Seeking to accomplish his task, Vishwamitra tried many things to get Harishchandra to lie or to renege on a promise, but all his efforts proved in vain, for Harishchandra was as committed to his values as had been heard by the gods.
Finally, Vishwamitra manipulated circumstances into a situation where Harishchandra was obliged to give up his kingdom and all his possessions to the sage. Even when thus tricked, Harishchandra gave up his kingdom with a smile, and with his wife and son, wearing only rags and barks of trees, set out for the forest. Stunned by such generosity, and in a last attempt at provoking the king, Vishwamitra asked him for the donation which is given to a sage after charity – the Dakshina.
The king, having given up everything he owned, had nothing left to give as Dakshina, but unwilling to commit the sin of refusing a Brahmin his Dakshina, asked Vishwamitra for a reprieve. He said, “O sage, at present I have nothing to call my own. Please give me a month to pay your Dakshina.” Faced by such a humble request, the sage could not, but help accede, and gave him the grace period of a month to pay the Dakshina.
Harishchandra wandered all over the country, trying to earn enough money to pay the sage, but even the gods seemed to be against him, for he was unsuccessful wherever he went. Finally, he reached the holy city of
Kashi – today known as . Varanasi
Kashi was a town full of people. Learned people came there to gather even more knowledge, pilgrims turned up in large numbers, full of devotion, and people came there in their old age, hoping to die in the holy city and attain heaven. Even in this crowded city, Harishchandra was unable to find any employment.
The grace period was drawing to a close, and Harishchandra was worried. He couldn’t bear to go back on his word, yet he couldn’t find a way to honor it either. Finally his wife, Taramati, who was as righteous as her husband, made a suggestion, “My lord”, she said, “in just a few days, the sage will arrive asking for his Dakshina. We have so far been unable to make a single penny. I have a suggestion to make, which, though it sounds improper, is the only way left to us. There is a great demand in this city for slaves, who can work for the many rich people who live here. Please sell me and use the money to pay off the sage. Later, when you make enough money, you can buy me back again.”
Harishchandra was aghast at this suggestion! “Sell off my wife, who has stood by me through all my troubles! Impossible!” he cried. However, as time passed, and he was unable to earn money, he had to give in to wife and agreed to sell her.
Taking his wife to the slave market, he sold her to the highest bidder, an aged Brahmin who agreed to pay even more for the little boy accompanying her. Faced with no choice, Harishchandra accepted the money and let his wife and child go with the Brahmin. Just then, Vishwamitra arrived and demanded his Dakshina again, and Harishchandra handed over all the money he had just received, but Vishwamitra was not satisfied. He said, “Is this the Dakshina you pay a sage of my caliber? I cannot accept such a pittance!”
As Harishchandra was pondering over what to do, a chandala – a man of the lowest of the lower castes, those who are only permitted to work and live on cremation grounds – arrived, and said he was looking for an able bodied man to work for him. Immediately Vishwamitra turned to Harishchandra and said, “Why don’t you sell yourself to this man and pay me my due?”
Harishchandra was appalled! Chandalas were considered untouchables! When it was forbidden to even touch a chandala, he, a king, had to work for a chandala! How had he fallen to such a low state, lower than even a chandala! Even as such thoughts passed through his mind, he realized that he had no other option, and agreed to work for the chandala. Vishwamitra was finally satisfied with the money he received, and left, leaving Harishchandra with the chandala.
The chandala put Harishchandra to work in the cremation ground, teaching him how to cremate bodies, how to separate the burnt body parts, how much to charge, and so on. Harishchandra started living on in the cremation ground, working conscientiously, though with a heavy heart.
He was continually troubled by thoughts of his wife and son. “What condition would they be in? Were they waiting for him to come and rescue them? They do not even know that I am a slave myself!” he thought.
Time passed, and Harishchandra grew used to the work. His wife and son too got used to the poverty and the hard life they led, working in the Brahmin’s house. One day, the young boy went to the garden to collect flowers, was bit by a snake, and died. Taramati was disconsolate! She cried and cried, but finally she had to agree to consign the body to flames, and started for the cremation ground with her child in her arms.
Harishchandra was on duty at the cremation ground, and he saw the woman bring a child for cremation. Poverty and difficulty had so changed all of them so much, that neither of them recognized the other. As per his duty, Harishchandra asked for the charge of cremation. Taramati began crying, saying, “I am a slave and have nothing except these clothes on my body. Even my only child is dead! What can I pay you?” Harishchandra was moved by her piteous cry, but he could not budge from his duty of collecting the charge.
Suddenly he noticed that the woman was wearing a ‘mangalsutra’ – the sign of her marriage - and said, “Woman, why do you lie when you say you have nothing to give? You can give me your mangalsutra in exchange for the cremation!”
Taramati was astonished! Her mangalsutra was a special one which could only be seen by her husband! She burst into tears at her predicament, and said, “My Lord, we must have committed many sins in our previous lives to be in this state today. I am your wife, but you do not recognize me! This is our son, who is a prince, but lies here, dead, without even the benefit of cremation!”
When his wife spoke thus, Harishchandra recognized her, and wept for his dear son, as well as their condition, but would not budge. “It is my duty to collect this tax, and I shall never budge from my duty, no matter what happens!” he said.
Taramati was as good and virtuous as her husband, and she said, “All I have are the clothes on my body. Will you accept half of them and cremate our child?” When Harishchandra agreed, she started tearing off her clothes, but just then, the heavens erupted in applause!
The gods in heaven rained flowers on the couple, and Vishwamitra appeared. He said, “O King, all the troubles you have faced have been created by the gods to test your commitment to truth and honesty. You have not only emerged unscathed from these tests, but have earned a place in heaven due to your merits. You can now return to your kingdom with your wife and son and continue to rule till it is time to enter heaven.” As the sage said these words, the little boy lying dead on the pyre sat up and rubbed his eyes, as if waking from sleep.
Harishchandra was thrilled to see his son alive, and glad to hear that his troubles were ending. But he said, “O sage, you might have given me these troubles to test me, but the fact remains that I am the slave of a chandala and my wife the slave of a Brahmin. While we remain slaves, we cannot accept anything.”
The sage was very happy. He said, “Harishchandra, you are indeed the most truthful and honest man ever. Look, there are the chandala and the Brahmin. See who they are.” Indeed, the chandala and Brahmin were coming towards them, but suddenly, their forms changed, and as they approached, the king realized that the Brahmin was Indra and the chandala, Dharma (Yama). They said, “We took these forms to test you, Harishchandra. Please forgive us and consider yourself free. Go and rule your kingdom in peace!”
Harishchandra went back to Ayodhya and ruled righteously for some more years, and when the time came, handed over the reins of the kingdom to Rohitashwa and attained heaven.
The name ‘Harishchandra’ has become synonymous with truthfulness and honesty. The story of the truthful king has inspired many and continues to inspire people even today. Indeed, the king is truly immortal!